Mark Meyering, Goodwill Ambassador for 3M, is visiting the MH4H Campus to offer his expertise for our Hydroponics systems. A chemical and water expert, Mark is working together with LEVO International to troubleshoot potential problems with the installation of these systems. The following entries are his  “Ambassador Log’s”.


Ambassador’s Log: Monday, February 26, 2018. 

Tipay (pronounced: Tee Pie) digs holes, digs trenches, digs foundations for walkways…trust me, he can dig. He is lean and it’s all lean muscle. He makes me feel like a blob of Jello. Nate is pretty well built himself, a former Rugby player in college. But working together it took Nate and I almost 3 hours to dig one hole the diameter of a barrel and 20” deep in the clay and volcanic stone-packed earth; Tipay took his thin blade spade with an iron handle and dug the second hole in 20 minutes to a depth of nearly 30 inches.

He wears a pair of gloves that are only gloves in the academic sense. From what remains of the wrist and palms they might have once been thick enough to provide protection, but now the useless finger sleeves flap around like fringe and the palms are threadbare. I have a pair of 3M gripping work gloves made of space-age tough stuff. I talked to Craig, and he will arrange to get them to Tipay’s hands. That works for me. Tipay is one of many locals hired and being paid by MH4H. There is a balance to be struck, and that includes need-based materials distributed from the MH4H resource center. I won’t be around when the gloves are distributed. No special treatment; everybody works, needs are met.

Tipay putting use to his new gloves

If it weren’t for Tipay, (and many others here) there is no way Nate and I could complete the shoring up this week on the seven “Babylon” single-family prototypes that are either on campus or off. An eighth system is under construction behind my dorm in the shade of the plantain grove. We need eight holes in the earth to bury each of the 25-gallon drums of hydroponic feed solution. We need to come up with new cleaning and protection protocols to manage the evaporation rate and consistency of the feedwater.

The earth is a heat sink; capable of holding and maintaining a lower temperature than a drum left out in the air. We have measured water temperature fluctuations in the open air drums, and they have gone from a low of about 20 degrees C to a high of near 30 in the course of a single day. We expect to see an improvement. We prefer an average temperature at or below 20 C once buried; with minimal fluctuations. This alone will be a significant improvement to the maintenance and the consistency and holds promise in control of algae blooms.

Micah working on installing the sunken tanks

I drew lines on the side of a paint bucket to mark 0.5-gallon increments. Accurately. So much we take for granted back home, has to be invented in Haiti. We had no way to measure bulk volume in a pipe system or measure collected water over a time interval.

Hand pumps for the small systems

Fungus and root-rot are also a danger. The fungus appears at the base of a stem as a white sticky goo and turns the green stem to a ring of black once it takes hold. At that point it’s too late; the plant is beyond help.This has happened more frequently in direct sun-facing systems, and we suspect there is an effect of fluid temperature here as well; the cooler systems in the plastic sheet-covered greenhouse have a lower incidence of this failure.

Root-rot is a danger not only to the individual plant but to all plants in a piping system. All roots share the same nutrient broth. It spreads bad stuff as well as good stuff.

Checking for disease

Other things to watch for

We have a mitigation plan that includes fast isolation of an infected plant. Nate has established a “hospital” system where a potentially diseased plant can be placed for recuperation. In a hydroponic system, the whole plant can be moved from pipe to pipe, roots and all. Roots that have grown through their containment cup are monitored and trimmed to 4” length; the whole plant is easily removed for root inspection. Once in the nutrient water, absorption is fast. Less energy is wasted growing vast root systems, more energy goes into plant and fruit production.

Today is all work, and the task list for the next 4 days is packed. I am warned that everything happens more slowly in Haiti, but I need to break that paradigm. I’m taking responsibility for writing the on-site measurement and replenishment protocols for fertilizer based on TDS, and to review and finalize the pH control plan. Micah will manage the translation into Creole.

A major goal is to ensure consistent fertilizer supply to local users (our customers) of the Babylon system. The locally supplied Haitian fertilizer is a general purpose mix intended for dirt gardening. It is functional and has a rated (but not certified) NPK content of 12-12-20. It is readily available, widely used and very low cost in comparison to any import, but it is inconsistent (batch to batch) when compared to our imported U.S. fertilizer mix, and it’s full of inactive ingredients not helpful to hydroponics. Levo’s first attempt to use it was a failure, grinding and dumping the dirty mix into a nutrient barrel, it pumped all kinds of junk into the pipes that we’re still cleaning out, though that’s understandable for a first attempt.

We need to extract and measure the effective concentrations of the soluble salts, in order to formulate feedwater and maintain optimal growth. We also need to separate the inactive ingredients. This will involve water extraction, sedimentation “racking” and perhaps filtration. I envision that this can effectively be accomplished with simple components that are found in Haiti; like 5-gallon pails and cheesecloth-sachets for holding a mass of fertilizer submerged for a couple days. Gotta be as creative as the Haitians!

My little kitchen lab now boasts a giant hanging produce scale, which has a spring-loaded mechanism and a resolution of maybe +/- 10 grams.. completely lousy for analytical purposes. I’m trying to make standard solutions. I have to start a dilution series with a huge solvent (water) volume just to compensate for my crummy weight resolution. I only need a cup full of the sample to run the tests, and I’m making 10 to 25 gallon starting solutions. I miss my old Mettler, my Ohaus… heck, I’d settle for one of those little kitchen digital scales popular with the diet-conscious cook; they must be good to +\- 0.2 grams!!! I have a growing shopping list of gear to pick up when I get home, repackage and send down here via the missionary airline; which only delivers bulk freight maybe once a month. Amazon does not deliver to Pignon.

I did get a chance to goof off with the 3-to-5-year-old kids that go to the preschool on campus… they were fascinated with Nate’s cleanup operation. I sat down nearby and got swarmed. I am the “Grandpapa Blan”.

I got Nate to snap a pic of me with Claudin, the chief agronomist for MH4H and he runs the show here with the ornamental and food gardens, and groves. Claudin speaks reasonably well in English, and translates for me. Our hydroponic gardener (Kely) reports to Claudin. These guys are sharp and creative; they know the soil and the seasons well.


Claudin and Mark

Monday evening, we conducted our first Technical Design Review and the first round of FMEA in preparation for our full gate review with the Levo board in June. Our “field engineering” team is Nate, Micah, Kely, Claudin and myself. We came away with a (mostly) complete list of the problems to solve, the short-term actions (between now and week’s end), and the identified actions to flesh out in Feasibility phase. We are shoring up the prototypes, readying our protocols and control plans, hardening our (simple) measurements, and prepping for replication studies.

In this and the next growing cycle, we want to generate hard numbers on replicate yield (weight of produced vegetable per system) using plants and conditions that represent the best case to date. This will be valuable data; since the only true measurement of success is a bountiful and reliable supply of food. There is much to learn and much to do.

Ambassador’s Log: Tuesday, February 27, 2018. 

Technology project management is just as much about managing expectations as it is about managing timelines. Here in Haiti, even a mundane task like “protective cover for a bucket” requires some level of innovation. The Haitians are pretty good at innovation. Because (frankly) the parts are not available and need to be fabricated from something that is lying around.

Toys from trash – Haitians are very innovative

An absolutely cranking Tuesday and all tasks are complete! Just enough time left to close up “The Lab” and get packed.

For me, this has been and will continue to be, a science mission. But I can’t disagree there are other elements at play. I’ve picked 4 principles that inform this mission, and they all come from Pope Francis.

  • “We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers behind which we can hide, still, less is there room for the globalization of indifference.”
  • “We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us… it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.”
  • “We must not forget the grave social consequences of climate change; it is the poor who suffer the worst.”
  • “Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.”

So here ends my Ambassador’s Log, in a Day’s Inn about 20 minutes from Fort Lauderdale on Broward Boulevard. Broward County is in the news these days for a terrible reason. You don’t have to travel to Haiti to find problems that need solutions.

I am humbled and honored to have been in the presence of the good people of Haiti, one of the most hauntingly beautiful places on this earth.

I don’t talk about my faith (or lack thereof) very much, for a reason. If you believe in God, I am sure you will understand that we are all God’s children, and we are all beautiful, and worthy of His love and mercy. Regardless of where we were born. If you are struggling with faith, or have lost your religion, please make sure that you find a way to love each other, and spread that love as best you can. If you are all about the data, then work the data with love, and know that your work has a noble purpose. In my journey, I am finding there is a seat at the table for faith, love, and data, and that all 3 can come together to get the right thing done. I am convinced that we can together do the right thing. For Haiti, for Detroit, for Broward, or a thousand other noble and worthy missions… you name it; it’s your choice. We only get one life. Don’t be discouraged, you can do this… You are here for this purpose. You are an Ambassador, too.

Peace Out for now…

To read the Ambassador Log # 2 click here.